Among the long list of behavioral quirks ascribed to therapists is the tendency to answer a client’s question with a question or to duck the query by other means. Understanding the reasons why therapists avoid answering questions can make this tendency less galling and shed some light on the therapeutic process.
If you go to therapy with clear-cut, “which way should I go?” questions, and expect definitive, concrete answers, you’re likely to come away unsatisfied, at least at first. If you want to know whether you should break up with your boyfriend, take a job on the other side of the world, or confront a sibling about issues from your past, it’s very likely you’ll see some dodging and weaving from your therapist when pressed. If it’s your money and your hour, why can’t you just get a straight answer? This question has many answers and the first one points all the way back to the birth of psychotherapy and Sigmund Freud himself.
While modern therapists usually face their clients seated across from them in the office, Freud avoided visual contact altogether. Seating patients in the reclining couch made famous by generations of film and television therapists, Freud would sit at the head of the couch, out of the patient’s view. The patient would then “free associate” or say whatever came to mind in the moment.
Freud believed that this unrestricted, free-form explanation would create space for the unconscious mind to surface its own needs and desires in the form of veiled allusions in dreams or fantasies. Freud also theorized that keeping the analyst as an indistinct and somewhat mysterious figure encouraged transference in which the patient subconsciously confuses the analyst for a parent or another significant person in the patient’s past. If the analyst were to answer questions directly, this false identification would most likely shatter and the opportunity to make contact with the patient’s subconscious would be lost.
While Freud’s unconventional seating arrangement faded into obscurity, the belief that the therapist should avoid injecting his or her opinions and beliefs into the session and “get out of the client’s way” remains a dominant view among therapists and the supervisors who train them.
Living Up to Expectations
But it isn’t just psychoanalysts who avoid client questions. Regardless of a therapist’s theoretical allegiances, few would quibble with the idea that people act differently in different social contexts. We all have different social masks we wear to appease different authority figures in our lives. Most of us behave quite differently around our parents, our partners, and our bosses, and quite rightfully so. But if we’re busying being all these different people, who is the “real” person? Maybe this foundational personality could emerge in therapy, but if a therapist exposes personal values and expectations through frank answers to direct questions, a client might be tempted to construct yet another mask to meet the therapist’s expectations rather than moving towards a less-guarded stance.
What Would I Ever Do Without My Therapist?
Many people come to therapy because they have difficultly making decisions and taking definite steps to better their lives. Clients commonly believe they lack knowledge of which course of action is best, but in my own experience, difficulty making a particular decision often points to poor decision-making skills overall. In this case, if I “give them the answer,” not only do I avoid the underlying deficit, but I also own the outcome. If things go badly for the client based on my decision, now the client has a scapegoat: me.
Worse still, people with longstanding deficiencies often recruit others to make up the difference. While I’m all for hiring a plumber or an accountant when expertise is needed, encouraging a client to use the resources of a therapist to manage their lives rather than to build their own resources sets up a cycle of dependence between therapist and client. One of my mentors likes to say “I teach my clients to be their own therapist.” Direct answers to specific questions make it too easy to short-circuit the process of helping clients do their own work.
It’s Good Advice Not to Give Advice
If you don’t already believe human beings are at least partially irrational, consider the following: when people ask directly for advice, and are given what they request, the chances are overwhelming they won’t follow the advice they solicited. Direct questions can often be of the form of advice-seeking, and when they are, a wise therapist avoids the direct answer to sidestep the futility of advice-giving.
My Answer to Client Questions
So far, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m making excuses for therapists who won’t give a client a straight answer. The truth is that clients come to therapy with real questions and believe (rightly or wrongly) that getting those answers would improve their lives. When a client corners me with a question, I always stop and make sure I let them know I heard and understood the question. I validate the person’s desire for an answer. If there’s a good reason why I’m not going to answer that question right away, I give them the reason right up front. Then I may direct the conversation so they work on the question themselves or we address what makes that question troublesome for them. At this point, I often feel it’s all right to offer my viewpoint on their issue now that they’ve taken their best cut at the problem. This still leaves me open to the risk that the client will start telling me only what matches my beliefs, but avoiding the question altogether might damage the therapeutic alliance even more.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by